My poetry collection The Bell Tower is forthcoming with The Emma Press.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, V&A, June to Nov 2018
I entered the V&A with the resistance I associate with having to pay to see an exhibition; and the subsequent question of will it be good value – an ominous starting point for engaging with any art. The £12 ticket gives you a time-slot and you queue to gain access on a one-in, one-out system to avoid overcrowding.
You first enter through a narrow dark corridor that feels and serves as a bottle-neck. This space is used to exhibit a series of black and white photos of Frida Kahlo as a child, young woman, adult. The public jostled cattle-like for space and air; to assert your stance in front of any one image took bravura and I found myself unwilling and disengaged. I opted to move on quickly and was glad as each subsequent room gave physical and emotional expansion to my experience.
Kahlo’s personal belongings, displayed bright and bold in glass cases, gave pathos and depth to her work. A great part of the exhibition is given over to items of clothing that both served as a purposeful self-fashioning on her part, and as a means of obscuring and accommodating her physical disability and the surgical structures she relied on daily; corsets, false shoes and boots, metal braces. As these items amassed, the artist persona receded against the physical reality of Kahlo’s short life, the disability and extreme pain she lived with, the multiple operations, periods spent bed-bound. No wonder she painted herself, constructed her art around her own form.
Kahlo’s art does feature in the exhibition, it’s fitting that it is hung on the peripheries of the spaces you walk though with the artists’s clothing taking centre stage. The exhibition mirrors the complex and ornate threads in the outfits she wore, the viewer’s gaze weaves back and forth between art work; artist; photo; pain; art work; husband; artist; letter; pain; art work – and so on. It is a complex tapestry with each viewer having agency over which part they work. I left knowing that I had experienced something acutely personal, un-replicable, profoundly moving.
Oddly, those images that I had barely glanced at in the bottle-neck, flashed sharp in negative as I walked through the spaces: Frida in a suit; Frida as a girl; Frida at a party. I cannot think this an accident. The curators crafted a visceral and purposeful visual experience for the audience with the first photo gallery acting like a zoetrope of image imprint in preparation for the most astounding onslaught of colour and pain that follows.
You exit into a gallery shop adorned by Kahlo-colour and consumables ranging from £2 tat to £200 shawls. It’s a shame. After the exhibits you don’t need any more colour and you don’t need to take anything home. And there’s a distaste at commodifying the clothing synonymous with Kahlo and her physical pain – which we’ve just seen. That said, the £12 was well worth it and this was an astonishing exhibition.